This week, the United Methodist Church put a pastor on trial named Frank Schaefer for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. The judge, retired bishop Al Gwinn, ruled out as inadmissible any defense arguments based on scripture or other sections of the Book of Discipline, reasoning that only “the facts” of what Schaefer did were relevant to determining the verdict. While I understand the rationale and practical limitations that necessitate this approach to justice, I do not think it does justice to justice. The promise that we receive in scripture is that God judges according to the heart. Hebrews 4:12-13 says: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” Continue Reading
Please excuse the gratuitous selfie; I couldn’t think of another graphic to use. I was reading a passage in Greek today and it hit me in a different way than it ever has before. It’s 1 Corinthians 6:12-13, which illustrates how Christian morality differs from a casuistic or legalistic moral system. Few Christians are willing to accept how radical Paul is being when he says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” It is a morality that is based not on following a particular set of rules, but on living in such a way that we seek union with Christ. The question is whether our lives are NSFJ (not safe for Jesus). Few Christians are willing to rise to Paul’s challenge so they define their “morality” according to a safe, limited set of rules (often the trinity of “no sex, no drugs, no cussing”) that they don’t have trouble keeping and they can judge others for breaking. Continue Reading
If there ever comes a time when evangelical Christians are known for something other than their opposition to homosexuality, maybe today’s Supreme Court ruling will help. We have been living through an era in which Christian morality has been almost exclusively focused on sexuality. Within the Christian community, the gay marriage debate has helped to delineate two entirely different visions for Christian holiness. Do we understand holiness primarily in terms of correctness, or fidelity to a set of commandments? Or is holiness primarily a state of the heart in which we have been emptied of all obstacles to loving God and our neighbor? How you understand holiness determines how you will read scripture and how you think about homosexuality as a Christian.
In Brian Zahnd’s May 26th sermon “New Creation (Not Evacuation),” he confronts the neo-Gnosticism of the evangelicals who think we can trash the Earth because God’s just going to blow it up anyway, taking on in particular the key prooftext of the rapture fan club, 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Zahnd uses the analogy of going to the airport to receive a relative who’s been away on a long trip, like a military deployment. People who read rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 are like someone who goes to the airport to pick up Jesus, except that they’ve packed their suitcases to get on an outbound plane rather than getting their house ready to receive Him. There’s a lot of good stuff in Brian’s sermon but the best part is a poem he wrote about the holiness of belonging to this world.
There’s been an outburst this past week from evangelical women bloggers against the idolatry of virginity. Three prominent posts have come from Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and Emily Maynard. It’s been amazing to read in the comments about the toxic things that youth pastors and parents have said to conservative evangelical girls about sex (“No man will ever want you now,” etc). I grew up in a more moderate evangelical environment where I never encountered anything like purity balls or abstinence pledges. So I wanted to respond to Emily Maynard’s challenge to articulate a more holistic account of sexuality. Because I do believe that sex is a powerful force whose abuse can wreak havoc on our ability to worship God. And I also recognize that there are some very unhealthy distortions that have been at play in the evangelical consciousness. And I think that ultimately it all boils down to what we think heaven means. I’ll explain. Continue Reading
With it being Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we preached on justice as our sermon series topic this weekend. For my text, I used Isaiah 58, where Isaiah confronts the people of Israel for fasting without justice. God’s people have often pursued devotional practices that “honor” God not only to the exclusion of treating other people justly but as a means of legitimating their lack of justice. I often call this pitting love of God against love of neighbor. As I was contemplating Isaiah 58, it hit me that our sensibilities about justice are often derived in whether we are seeking piety or holiness in our religious life. Here is my sermon audio. Continue Reading
I have learned a lot from Tim Keller. His books Prodigal God and Generous Justice are two of the most important books I have read. So I signed up for his sermon podcast recently. The first sermon I listened to was about spiritual warfare, based on Ephesians 6. There was a lot of good content, but there was one thing that disappointed me: the way that Tim Keller puts God’s love and God’s holiness in binary opposition to one another and oversimplifies each of their definitions. I realize that he would be more nuanced and theologically precise in a book rather than a sermon for seekers who need things to be kept simple. But I think that this impoverished presentation of the concept of holiness is one of the biggest problems that plagues neo-Reformed theology today. Continue Reading
Today I preached at the iglesia evangélica dominicana de Sosua here in the Dominican Republic on one of my favorite texts in the Bible: Isaiah 6. I’ve always seen the story of Isaiah’s call as a model for how God calls each of us. It also illuminates the importance of the fear of God and its relationship to holiness. Before Isaiah can come to the place where he says, “Here am I; send me,” he has to go through the overwhelming encounter with God’s presence that causes him to say, “Woe is me! I am lost.” He is able to respond to God’s call with authenticity because he feared God first. Continue Reading
I’ve been reading through Stanley Hauerwas’ Working with Words. I just read an essay in which he gives a great summary of the problem with moralistic therapeutic deism: “God becomes that great OK who tells us we are OK and… we should tell others they are OK.” In other words, God’s “I love you” is twisted into “I approve of everything you do.” Having argued for a more therapeutic understanding of holiness ( that God is more interested in healing than retribution), I thought I should distinguish that from the view that God is our “yes man therapist who approves of everything we do.
One of my favorite things about Stanley Hauerwas is the way he says outlandish, exaggerated things to get a rise out of people. For example, in a recent lecture to the Duke Youth Academy, he shared that he wished the phrase “under God” could be taken out of the pledge of allegiance, because it promotes a generic concept of God that isn’t necessarily Trinitarian. I often try clumsily to emulate Hauerwas by saying things in a more provocative way than they necessarily need to be expressed. One example is my last post on moralistic therapeutic deism which I’ll admit was fairly sloppy. No, I’m not an advocate of bad, wishy-washy theology nor do I think Jesus is. But I have encountered arguments in which MTD is made analogous to the basic premise that love is behind everything God does and command us to do. The underlying question I’m wrestling with is how we understand the why’s and what-for’s of holiness. Continue Reading